California birding

2017-03-08 Sacramento NWR 9 Snowy Egret, Glossy Ibis

Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, March 8, 2017: Snowy Egrets and Glossy Ibises. Photo by Barb Gorges

Published April 30, 2017, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Coast comes through with great birds”

By Barb Gorges

If I added these bird species to my life list last month [March], where would you say I’d been?

Surf scoter, pelagic cormorant, western gull, band-tailed pigeon, Anna’s hummingbird, Allen’s hummingbird, Nuttall’s woodpecker, California (formerly western) scrub-jay, California towhee, golden-crowned sparrow.

If you guessed California, you would be right. But it isn’t the birds with “California” in their names that is the best clue. That would be the Nuttall’s woodpecker, found entirely in the state and the northern tip of Baja California. We saw ours in the arboretum at the University of California Davis.

2017-03-05 Point Reyes NS-Western Gull-by Mark Gorges

Western Gull, Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Five of the species new to me—the hummingbirds, pigeon, towhee and scrub-jay—were in the backyard of the bed and breakfast we stayed at in Olema, California. The host fills the feeders every morning at 8:15 a.m. just before serving breakfast and his guests are treated to a flurry that also includes numerous California quail, white-crowned sparrows and, just like home, Eurasian collared-doves.

2017-03-08 Olema-California Quail-by Mark Gorges

California Quail surveys feeding station at the B & B in Olema, California. Photo by Mark Gorges. 

The pelagic cormorant would tell you that we spent time at the ocean. Despite the “pelagic” part of its name, which should indicate it is found far offshore, this cormorant is a shore dweller. Mark and I saw it way below us, in the rocks, at the lighthouse at Point Reyes National Seashore.

2017-03-06 Point Reyes Lighthouse 6

Point Reyes National Seashore Lighthouse, March 6, 2017. Photo by Barb Gorges.

At Point Reyes Beach North, we encountered signs warning us about the protected nesting area for the federally designated threatened western population of snowy plovers. The area of the beach to be avoided was clearly marked with 4-foot white poles and white rope. Mark and I, and our Sacramento friends, formerly of Casper, dutifully gave it a wide berth.

And then the birds flew up in front of us anyway. We watched as five or six of the little white-faced sand-colored shorebirds fluttered away and settled down again nearby—in human footprint depressions.

Snowy Plover close-up by Mark Gorges, and camouflaged on the beach by Barb Gorges.

The American Birding Association’s “Field Guide to the Birds of California” says that the snowy plovers breeding on beaches like to find depressions so they don’t cast as much of a shadow to avoid detection by predators. They like the depressions for nesting too. Makes me think someone should walk once or twice through the official nesting area to make some, but who wants to pay the fine for trespassing? Besides, human activity and loose dogs scare the birds and prevent them from breeding.

Snowy plover was not a lifer for us—our first ones were at Caladesi Island State Park, Florida [managed at the time by Bill Gruber, former Wyoming Tribune Eagle Outdoors editor]. There too, their nesting area was delineated and protected, though in Florida they are only on the state-level threatened species list.

Snowy plovers are more than oceanic beach birds. You might find nesting populations across the southwestern U.S. at shallow lakes with sand or dried mud.

One bird I wanted to see was the wrentit. California, western Oregon and northern Baja California are the only places to see it. At the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge, I found two cute little birds that seemed to match the field guide. Another visitor noticed them popping in and out of a two-foot-long hanging sack made of bits of vegetation woven together and a red flag went up in my mind.

2017-03-08 Sacramento NWR Bushtit-by Mark

Bushtit and nest, Sacramento NWR. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Didn’t this hanging nest remind me of one I’d seen before in Seattle? Made by bushtits? Well darn, those were bushtits. They are only 4.5 inches long, whereas wrentits are 6.5 inches long, and wrentits build cup-shaped nests instead. If you were to draw a line from Seattle to Houston, bushtits can be found south of it, anywhere brushy and woodsy.

This was our first trip to California as eBirders, recording birds we saw at eBird.org. As usual, it came about as the result of a family commitment, which almost all our traveling does. We might have seen more species had we been on a birding tour, like we’ve done in Texas and Florida, but I think we did well at 86 species. The birds just seemed to pop out and give us a good look. Or maybe you could say they took a good look at us. [Have you ever been scrutinized by three turkey vultures on three adjoining fence posts next to a trail?]

We’ll have to make a point of visiting our family and friends in California more often. There are 571 bird species left to see—and half would be life birds.

2017-03-07 Point Reyes Abbotts Lagoon 8 Turkey Vultures

Turkey Vultures roost next to a trail at Point Reyes National Seashore. Photo by Barb Gorges.

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Following flock to Colorado Field Ornithologists’ meeting

Unknown flycatcher

Here’s a candidate for the next Jeop-birdie quiz. Photo by Mark Gorges.

Published Sept. 21, 2014, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Following flock of birders to Sterling was fun.”

By Barb Gorges

I wasn’t sure what to expect when Mark and I decided to attend the annual meeting of the Colorado Field Ornithologists. The group’s name sounds so formal.

Their 51st annual meeting was held over Labor Day weekend in Sterling, Colorado, only two hours southeast of Cheyenne. Like other conventions, it included talks, vendors and a banquet with a keynote speaker, but unlike other conventions, there were dozens of field trips.

I worried I might feel out of place, even if the information on the website, http://cfobirds.org/, assured me that beginning birdwatchers were welcome. CFO is all about the study, conservation—and enjoyment of birds.

Enjoy we did. Our first trip leader, CFO member Larry Modesitt, not only patiently explained field marks for common birds to several trip members who needed help, but he was also able to discuss the finer details of flycatcher fall plumage with one of the other members who surveys birds for a living.

CFO takes birding quite seriously. Each day, 14 field trips left every 10 minutes beginning at 5:20 a.m. One even started at 4 a.m.

Each field trip had a designated leader who contacted all of their trip participants at least a week in advance to discuss routes, carpooling, rest and lunch stops, and even how much to reimburse drivers for gas.

Our third trip leader, Nick Komar, also a CFO member, consulted with other people on what had been seen where we were going, and then worked hard to help us find those birds.

It was while visiting a designated birdwatching bench along the South Platte River at the Brush State Wildlife Area that our group saw warblers in clear view, all in one bush, six to eight at a time: Wilson’s, orange-crowned and yellow-throat. They were flitting about gleaning bugs, sparkling like yellow ornaments. At the other river overlook nearby, we found a plethora of woodpeckers: a redhead family, several red-bellied woodpeckers, a hairy woodpecker and yellow-shafted flickers.

While our first trip was filled with flycatchers and our third highlighted woodpeckers and warblers, the second, with Mark Peterson, was about shorebirds.

The whole idea for Sterling as a convention site was to catch the shorebird fall migration. Usually, the CFO annual meeting is planned around the spring migration. This was only the third time for a fall gathering. The keynote speaker was John Dunn, co-author of the National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America, and shorebird expert.

But all the lovely summer rains keeping the prairie green around Cheyenne and Sterling kept the reservoirs full. And when they are full, there is no shore, no bare sand or mudflats for shorebirds to pick over. But we got lucky and found muddy shores at a small pond at the Red Lion SWA—and shorebirds.

Shorebirds are right up there on my list of difficult-to-identify species, partly because I don’t see them often and partly because I see them in migration when they aren’t very colorful. I thought John Dunn’s after dinner talk on shorebird identification might help. But it was definitely over my head.

However, if I keep looking at shorebirds in photos and in the flesh, eventually my identification skills will improve. Luckily, there was no quiz afterwards.

There was, however, a quiz the afternoon before: Jeop-birdie. Categories, among many, included identifying famous ornithologists, poorly photographed birds and types of bird nests. Very entertaining.

Larry Modesitt told me CFO began because Colorado needed an arbiter to sort through claims of unusual bird species seen in the state (Wyoming has a rare bird records committee). Many members also belong to Audubon.

CFO also supports bird research. A number of the papers given Saturday afternoon were partly supported by CFO funding. Many looked at facets of bird life that once understood, such as the impact of oil and gas drilling noise on nesting birds, might make it easier to make land use decisions.

It isn’t easy walking into a group of 200 unknown people, but when they are all dressed like me, in field pants, sun-protection shirts or T-shirts printed with birds, large-brimmed hats and binoculars, it’s less intimidating. It’s very easy to start a conversation with “What field trip are you going on tomorrow?”

And after birding together, sharing exciting bird observations, many faces become familiar over the course of the weekend.

Next year, the convention will be in Salida, Colorado, first weekend in June. Now, there’s a spot I might pick up some new life birds.

Gosh, did I just sound like a dyed-in-the-wool, serious species-nabbing-twitcher? Yikes!

Fall bird migration infiltrates Cheyenne

Least Sandpiper

Least Sandpiper. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Published Sept. 19, 2002, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Some migratory birds more obvious than others.”

2014 Update: I keep working on my warbler and shorebird identification skills in hopes I’ll find more migrating bird species.

By Barb Gorges

It isn’t a good idea to park in the shade in our driveway this time of year. Splatters of orange fruit are augmented with crunchy seeds. The robins are fattening up for migration.

The neighbors across the street have a lovely old mountain ash full of orange berries. The robins seem to know better than to defile a tree that provides their food source, so they come across to ours to perch and defecate.

It’s really not a problem. We park in the garage and the fruit stains disappear with a snowfall or two. The seeds get swept away with each pass of the snow shovel.

We’ve actually benefited because mountain ash trees have sprouted in our garden and last year one was big enough to transplant.

The robins are very obvious as they swoop back and forth across the street. If we’re lucky, they won’t eat all the berries right away and there will still be some for the Townsend’s solitaire if it spends the winter in our neighborhood again.

Just when the leaves begin turning yellowish is the right time of year to keep an eye open for leaf-sized yellowish birds flitting among them. I’ve already seen a couple Wilson’s warblers (black spot on top of the head) inspecting the bushes for insects.

Many migrating birds merely infiltrate the local landscape, the way warblers do. Others, such as the shorebirds, stop over in wet places that are only on the regular routes of committed bird watchers.

Doug Faulkner of Denver is one of those birders. Here’s the list he reported on the Wyobirds listserv for Cheyenne, Sept. 8. It includes local wet areas such as Lions Park.

 

Baird's Sandpiper

Baird’s Sandpiper. Photo courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The sightings include: Wilson’s warbler, Townsend’s warbler, MacGillivray’s warbler, blue-gray gnatcatcher, Cassin’s vireo, Empidonax sp. (flycatcher species), hermit thrush, Swainson’s thrush, black-headed grosbeak, short-billed dowitcher, American avocet, pectoral sandpiper, stilt sandpiper, solitary sandpiper, least sandpiper, Baird’s sandpiper, red-necked phalarope, Wilson’s phalarope, Franklin’s gull, ring-billed gull, California gull, ducks, mostly mallard and northern shoveler.

I’m sure Doug saw other, more common species, including the Canada geese at Lions Park, but because they are common, they didn’t catch his interest.

I’m impressed by the list of sandpipers. These are the little brown birds with long legs that skitter at the edge of the water, probing the muck with their long bills, looking for invertebrate animals to eat.

Spotted sandpipers, which breed here in the summer, are not on Doug’s list and may have migrated already. However, the pectoral, stilt and Baird’s sandpipers are on their way back from nesting above the Arctic Circle.

When those three species migrate, they bustle right through here to spend the winter in southern South America.

The least and solitary sandpipers also breed in Alaska and Canada, but not quite as far north.

The least winters from the southern U.S. into the northern half of South America. The solitary prefers to winter further south, from the tip of Texas into Argentina.

“Our” sandpiper, the spotted, breeds all across the U.S., except for the southeast and far southwest, and doesn’t winter nearly as far south as the others mentioned above.

It’s really a pity that none of my six bird watching field guides have range maps that extend farther than central Mexico.

Instead, I depend on the Canadian Wildlife Service’s Ontario website, http://wildspace.ec.gc.ca/, to find out the rest of the story.

This oversight on the part of the field guides is either because the information wasn’t available at the time they were written, or because they are, after all, merely North American field guides.

But it leads to this provincial feeling that migratory birds are “our” birds and they merely visit lands to the south during inclement winter weather.

In truth, some species spend more time away than here, especially migrants passing through.

We don’t have an international airport in Cheyenne, but if you know where to hang out, where the travelers come to roost, this is a good time of year to catch a glimpse of a few fascinating foreigners.

Our berries, our insects and our muck are our gifts of hospitality.

Book reviews: The Shorebird Guide, Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, John James Audubon, the Making of an American

The Shorebird Guide

The Shorebird Guide

Published July 19, 2006, in the Wyoming Tribune Eagle, “Shorebird experts reveal their secrets.”

2014 Update: All three books are still recommended reading, still available.

By Barb Gorges

 The Shorebird Guide, by Michael O’Brien, Richard Crossley and Kevin Karlson, published 2006 by Houghton Mifflin.

Shorebirds made a big showing on the Cheyenne – High Plains Audubon Big Day Bird Count back in May. Seventeen species were recorded by the end of the day.

Now in July we are in the midst of shorebird migration again as they straggle back from their northern breeding grounds.

Back in May we had half a dozen crack birders with us who could glance through a spotting scope and proclaim obscure names but now I’m on my own.

I know a few common, unique looking shorebirds like the killdeer and avocet, but the rest just seem to blend into a mob of brown birds with long legs. I don’t see them often enough to practice identification.

How do the experts do it?

Three of them, Michael O’Brien, Richard Crossley and Kevin Karlson, reveal their secrets in a book released this spring by Houghton Mifflin, “The Shorebird Guide.” Their technique is based on “jizz” as they pronounce the acronym for “general impression of size and shape.”

To help readers get a feel for jizz, they’ve included multiple photos of each of the 50 shorebird species that can be seen in North America, plus the few that might blow in.

A typical field guide will give you a perfectly lit profile of one individual per species, but here are photos of flocks as seen in the orangey glow of sunrise or sunset, from a distance or with other species, giving some idea of relative size. In some photos, the birds may be molting or their feathers show wear or maybe they are this year’s young.

After 300 pages of photos, there are 160 pages of text and small range maps. Here’s where you get the skinny on population health, migration patterns and South American wintering grounds.

The best way to learn birds is to hang out with people who know them. This book is like that and I think with study, I might come closer to distinguishing the 30 species of shorebirds that pass through here once or twice a year.

Pete Dunne's Essential Field Guide Companion

Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion

Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion, by Pete Dunne, published 2006 by Houghton Mifflin

A second book released by Houghton Mifflin this spring was “Pete Dunne’s Essential Field Guide Companion.” There are no photos and no range maps. Instead, Dunne gives you a sense of a species’ “gizz,” as he spells the nickname for not only general impression of size and shape, but also typical behaviors and activities.

Dunne and his wife traveled all over North America to refresh their first impressions, coming up with nicknames for each species. Black-crowned night heron is “Waterfront Thug”; American robin is “Lawn Plover” and house sparrow is “Horatio Alger in Feathers (an American Success Story).”

These nicknames only work if you’ve seen the night herons at Holiday Park hunched at the water’s edge waiting to mug a fish, or if you know how plovers run along the shoreline, stopping suddenly to pluck invertebrates, or if you know that a few house sparrows were brought to North America from England and are now found everywhere.

One of the highlights of Cheyenne’s spring count was the golden-winged warbler. Dunne nicknames it “Chickadee-bibbed Warbler.” An eastern warbler few of us had seen before, the nickname does describe the unique and easy to see field mark.

Pertinent to the other vagrant eastern warblers we often see here during migration is Dunne’s “Vagrancy Index.” The golden-winged warbler rates a 3, “an established, widespread pattern of vagrancy. Ignore the range descriptions. This bird could be sighted almost anywhere.”

One disappointment is that though Dunne gives information on some species’ wintering grounds, he doesn’t for this warbler. But perhaps science doesn’t have the answer yet. A lot of the information Dunne gleaned from the great 17,000 page opus, “The Birds of North America,” but he nicely translates the scientific terminology for the reader.

Dunne gives a lot of gizz characteristics, though I need a vision in my mind’s eye to apply them to, such as the photos in the Shorebird Guide or other field guides. But, after all, this book is represented as only a field guide companion—only 700 pages’ worth.

John James Audubon, the Making of an American

John James Audubon, The Making of an American

John James Audubon, The Making of an American, by Richard Rhodes, paperback edition 2006, hardcover 2004, published by Random House.

But it’s the rainy season here so it’s a perfect time for pulling out the paperback edition that came out this spring of Richard Rhodes’ biography, “John James Audubon, The Making of an American.” The story is pretty amazing and I read every page.

Rhodes draws different conclusions than other Audubon biographers. He said Audubon was not a bad business man because his first business failed, but rather a victim, considering 90 percent of businesses also failed in the financial panic of 1819. Later, Audubon, a consummate salesman, convinced people to spend thousands in 1800s dollars on subscriptions to the four volumes of “Birds of America.”

The biography is one part love story, one part starving artist’s tale and one part frontier saga. But it will also help you understand why, over 100 years ago, bird watchers concerned with the conservation of birds decided to name their fledgling organizations after Audubon.